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Arctic Sea Ice Volume Nears Record Low

The total volume of Arctic sea ice shrank to the second-lowest amount ever in February, alarming scientists.

(Photo: Iceland Icebergs via Shutterstock; Edited: LW / TO)

In February, record high temperatures in the Arctic brought with them other records — including record lows for that month’s extent and area of Arctic sea ice.

Until this year, the previous records for sea ice extent and area for February were set in 2011.

Moreover, the total volume of the Arctic sea ice, which many scientists see as the most important factor determining the health of Arctic sea ice, reached its second-lowest level ever recorded that same month. The record low for sea ice volume was set in 2012, a record that could fall this year or next, according to scientists.

As anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) continues to outpace most of the worst-case predictions given by scientists, the melting happening in the north provides us with one of the most iconic examples of what our fossil fuel-based economy is costing the planet.

Record Arctic Heat

According to NASA, the Arctic was a shocking 18 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal for the month of February, which was one of the key factors driving the new low records for sea ice.

February in the Arctic was so warm that it was the single largest recorded monthly “temperature anomaly” (a deviation from the 1951-1980 averages) ever. February saw a 2.4 degree Fahrenheit deviation, and the previous record deviation (set in January) was 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Providing more disturbing context for the warming trends, The Weather Channel noted, “The five largest monthly global warm anomalies in NASA’s database have all occurred within the past five months.”

And the trends for Arctic sea ice continue in the wrong direction. Sea ice data provided by the Polar Science Center even indicated that, during some days in March so far, sea ice volume measurements briefly reached record lows. By early March, volume totals were already reaching the second-lowest volume ever recorded.

Robbed of Winter

Since January, Arctic temperatures have been in record or near-record warm ranges. The warmth has resulted in the warmest winter temperatures ever occurring for the entire region above the 80 degrees north latitude line.

In Canada’s Fort Yukon, a small Native community just inside the Arctic Circle, people are describing a situation where the Arctic has been “robbed” of its winter.

A researcher told the Guardian of the situation in Fort Yukon: “To put it in context: I tell people to imagine what if Los Angeles was 60 degrees warmer than it was supposed to be — because Fort Yukon is 60 degrees warmer than it’s supposed to be.”

Warm winds from the North Atlantic have been blowing warmer temperatures up into the Arctic off and on through the winter (one factor contributing to the melting of the sea ice), and current longer-range scientific modeling predicts that above average sea surface and air temperatures will continue through the spring and into the summer.

Given that the Arctic does not produce warmer temperatures itself, it is clear that ACD is causing the warmer temperatures to be introduced into the region from outside.

Hence, the stage is set for the melt season in the Arctic to likely break more records. The area’s sea ice may even be poised to create its own feedback loop of melting this summer in a way that resembles Greenland: Scientists recently showed how melting in Greenland has already caused the melting to “feed on itself” and generate even more melting.

Unfortunately, the feedback loop process that is besetting Greenland also applies more generally to ACD, and is behind the melting of the Arctic ice. Many scientists now believe that with all of these feedback loops in motion, intensified melting in the Arctic and Greenland — and the corresponding sea level rise — will likely be inevitable.

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